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Will US action on climate change lead Australia to adopt more ambitious policies?

Published 30 May 2021

On Tuesday 25 May, AIIA NSW interns debated the proposition “that increased US action on climate change will force Australia to adopt more ambitious climate policies.” The affirmative case was put by Intern Coordinator Chris Khatouki with interns Sanjay Balakumar and Alice Nason. The negative argument was put by interns Rachel Bell MacDonald, Adjoa Assan and Pailey Wang.

In favour

The starting point for the affirmative case was that Australia had become an international laggard in climate policy, all the more visible with the announcement of a new gas-driven power station in the Hunter Valley. Meanwhile the US under President Biden had a clear agenda both for domestic climate action and for managing trade and financial flows to promote climate change measures in other countries. This will not only address the need for alternative clean energy sources but will contribute to US security objectives, strengthening    US soft power and enhancing its export markets in a world where US dominance is increasingly challenged by China. It would be inconsistent with Australia’s security interests, given that we share US concerns about Chinese policy in such areas as the Belt and Road project, to continue to follow unchanged climate policies domestically. We needed to have a higher degree of interactivity and alignment with the US in our international and domestic climate policies.

The Democrats under Biden were unified in their readiness to adopt legislation and multilateral actions to combat climate change. The US’s normative power in multilateral institutions was already beginning to outweigh Australian reluctance: it had already prompted subtle changes such as our reduced emphasis on coal in favour of gas and our budget support for alternative energy sources. With the EU adopting measures to price carbon and China adopting increasingly concrete emission targets, Australia would need to avoid the reputational damage that would result from continued reluctance to pursue alternative energy sources.

In short, Australia had no choice in our climate policies but to join the international community under US leadership. Change takes time, in the US as much as in Australia, but the fundamental structure of our economy was shifting with the need to adapt to climate change. Businesses were already implementing green policies because that was in their interests. The US was always a major influence in international trends. It had changed dramatically with Trump’s departure – he and his supporters were now irrelevant – and we should not be complacent about the substantial progress occurring under President Biden. His ascent to power had already changed the debate in Australia, strengthening attacks on our laggard image (for example, on coal exports). If it were not for Biden, that conversation would not be happening.


The negative team argued that it was false to claim that climate policy and Australia’s security relationship with the United States were linked. Punitive pressure by the US on a strong ally like Australia would be damaging to US interests and would face huge congressional hurdles. Any US move toward carbon pricing imports or imposing tariffs on imports from laggard countries would also need to overcome major domestic obstacles. In Australia’s case, tariffs would not really bite, given that the US receives only 3.6% of our overall exports. Australia didn’t always do what the United States wanted; for example, in the South China Sea we had not joined US naval patrols. There remained strong conservative doubts within Australia about climate policy change. The US would not be likely to take steps which risked alienating a close ally and which would probably be ineffective. Australia was a fundamental element in the wider US strategic context, and the US needed all the support it could get.

With the world already nearing a 2% temperature rise, the US was hardly the world leader in climate policy: it was lagging behind Europe, China, Japan and other major Australian trade partners. US policy faced entrenched congressional resistance to real change. It had adopted no meaningful recycling action. Talk of a “new green deal” was fanciful. Congress was unlikely to approve imposing any form of carbon price or tax. US international actions would not be ambitious enough to influence other countries until they were backed by adequate domestic policy and action. Australian climate policy was in fact more ambitious than that of the US, and our achievements were already comparatively more substantial.

In this situation, it was not realistic to believe that Australian policy would be easily swayed by US or other international pressure. Reputational damage did not seem to be a factor for Australia; we had already suffered over a decade of criticism over our dependence on fossil exports. Recent reprovals from the EU, Britain and US climate envoy John Kerry had been to no avail. It was highly unlikely that Australia would be promoting substantial clean energy alternatives any time soon, when our interests lie in continuing our major export, coal. Why would we change now, especially given the key role of major energy companies in financing Australian political parties?


The adjudicator, international law expert Kevin Boreham, described the debate as very well-informed. The affirmative team’s link between possible US pressure on climate policy and fundamental security issues, including the US wish to combat a rising China, was original and convincing. The negative side had given a persuasive analysis of the US domestic scene, noting the difficulties in the way of the US doing very much to influence Australian climate policy; for example, emission-related tariffs were unlikely and would be ineffective. So long as internal US domestic climate policies remained weak, the US would have a flimsy basis for pressing Australia on such policies. Both teams were very good, but Mr Boreham awarded victory by a slight margin to the affirmative team.

Debaters (from left) Pailey Wang, Rachel Bell MacDonald, Adjoa Assan, Sanjay Balakumar (obscured), Alice Nason and Chris Khatouki with AIIA NSW president Ian Lincoln at the podium